Imagining Orange County

Its not the O.C., not Disneyland, not Newport. Eight writers imagine the real place you call home

Chloe, bitter at what the world has done to her, lives small, in a tight circle she can control. It's a strategy of withdrawal characterized by a refusal of almost everything modern (she won't even take aspirin for pain), so when her canyon camp gets raided again by cops (urged on by land developers who want to turn Chloe's beloved community into housing subdivisions), she strikes out instinctively at the police—Chloe is all primitive instinct—and gets tossed in jail for resisting arrest.

Since the novel is midcult romance (well-written romance, with some very good sex scenes, incidentally), written to satisfy an atavistic desire in middle-class women for a simpler time and place, Mapson shies away from the potentially illuminating conflict between a highly individualistic woman and the creepy developers in favor of merely exploring the relationship between Chloe and Hank. The novel ends as one might expect, with Chloe leaving Orange County for the northern Arizona desert—maybe here's a place where people will leave her the fuck alone—soon followed by the man who's learned to appreciate her gumption, so the theme of withdrawal into a time and space remote from what OC has come to mean gets reiterated. One imagines Chloe will keeping saying "No" until the last bit of the West gets developed—a plucky little goddess of a dwindling landscape, staking her claim to an American legacy of freedom ("Don't tread on me," essentially) that nearly everyone else has forgotten.

Winnie Farlowe, the hero of Joseph Wambaugh's Newport Beach/Balboa Island novel The Golden Orange, is a kind of male counterpart to Mapson's Chloe Morgan, though Wambaugh, a crafty pop phony, isn't in her league as a novelist. Winnie says "No," too, though since he's a depressed ex-cop and Newport Bay tour-boat guide, his rebellion takes a more passive form, which is to drink himself silly at a Newport Beach dive called Spooner's Landing, whose regulars, with names like Bilge and Guppy, speak the same cowboy patois that Mapson's characters speak, as if to connect themselves to something lasting and traditional, even if they only know it through the movies.

Winnie and his hearty drinking brethren are contrasted with the bejeweled citizens of the Golden Orange—Wambaugh's term for the South County slice of real estate inhabited by millionaires with yachts and the rumor-mongering women who assiduously dig for the yachtsmen's gold. The story—TV movie all the way—concerns one of the gold diggers, the beautiful and incredibly clich├ęd Tess Binder, who we're asked to believe falls in love with the down-and-out Winnie—the biggest credulity stretch in a novel full of them—only to use him in a plot to kill off a rival and inherit millions. The plot is too complicated, but the moral isn't: Orange County people with money are bad; Orange County people without are good.

Wambaugh's a real pro at being a con: he has us rooting for the underdog's "No" just so he can exploit his readers' sympathies, hike up the best-sellers list where the cash is, and say a big fat "Yes" to the Golden Orange himself. (Success with novels like The Golden Orange allow him to live here.) Now there's an Orange County story.

 

V.

KEEP COOL BUT CARE

Glenn Gaslin's novel Beemer, published in 2003, has the ambition, the array of impressively whacked ideas and the satiric invention to excite anybody interested in how a novel can explore Orange County's cultural meaning. Gaslin writes in the antic/absurdist tradition of Thomas Pynchon (The Crying of Lot 49), Douglas Coupland (Generation X) and Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), and if he hasn't quite reached Palahniuk's level yet (not to mention Pynchon's), Beemer's a first novel, and Gaslin is young. If Gaslin's promising talent doesn't sell itself out to other media, he might someday come up with a great OC novel.

Almost all the ingredients are already present in Beemer. The book's like a primer of late capitalist culture. It's about Beemer Minutia, a 23-year-old consultant who sells his knowledge about Gen Y's consumer desires to any corporation that'll hire him. At the same time, he's got his own dream in development: to become, himself, a brand name—Beemer™—that will make him rich and famous; in the contemporary marketplace, brand supercedes product, the sizzle before the steak.

He's got an Irvine girlfriend named Paul E. Klein who does PR for a boy band called Eunuch Town, whose gimmick is they literally have no balls. Beemer and Paul like to have sex atop her SUV at all the "edge" places they can find: places just on the verge of being developed, the ends of freeways where they're laying down more asphalt, empty lots where malls or housing tracts are being graded. Development itself is sexy to them.

Beemer moves into Paul's parents' gated McMansion (Paul's mother carries a shotgun to keep out anybody who doesn't look like they belong to the homeowner's association) and starts working for an OC advertising firm that wants him, among other things, to see if there's any way he can figure out a way to sell Death. CNN, meanwhile, is showing terrorists blowing up McDonalds and assassins offing the CEO of the Gap. All of which gives Beemer's girlfriend the idea to stage the ultimate PR coup for Eunuch Town: while they're playing a mall gig, she has terrorists blow up a nearby Home Depot, which is all captured live on TV.

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